Indian-American student becomes pro-Israel symbol for trying to stay neutral
When Milan Chatterjee arrived at UCLA’s law school in 2014, Middle East politics wasn’t one of his core interests. He describes himself as an Indian American interested in corporate law who has strong connections to his South Asian and Hindu heritage. He has played the Indian tabla drums on multiple recordings with prominent Indian musicians.
But now Chatterjee, who was the Graduate Student Association president at UCLA, has chosen to leave the school before completing his degree in the wake of a nearly yearlong battle with activists of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
After refusing to provide funding for UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter for an event last fall, Chatterjee claims that he was harassed by the activists and that UCLA administrators mishandled an investigation into his alleged policy infractions.
“The administration is working in collusion with BDS activists,” Chatterjee said. “I really feel bad for the Jewish student body. These are some of the nicest, most cultured, most hardworking people I’ve ever met. They come to school to enhance themselves academically and enhance the diversity of the campus. But they’re regularly targeted and bullied by the BDS movement.”
Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of the Hillel at UCLA, said the BDS controversy has not affected the average Jewish Bruin.
“There are far too many incidents, but BDS does not affect the daily lives of our Jewish students,” Lerner said, referring to other recent public altercations at UCLA, such as the one involving Rachel Beyda, who was asked about her Jewish heritage at a student government meeting in 2015. “Students are motivated to get involved, both to fight BDS and even more so to take back their student governments.”
Nevertheless, Chatterjee’s public critique of the school has made him a symbol of anti-BDS resistance to pro-Israel alumni and activists. In the past week, over 500 alumni have signed a Change.org petition calling for UCLA to issue a public apology to Chatterjee and rescind its Discrimination Prevention Office report, which concluded that Chatterjee violated the school’s viewpoint neutrality policies.
Some donors have even threatened to stop giving to the school. David Pollock, a Los Angeles-based financial adviser, has considered taking back an art collection he donated to UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Helen Jacobs-Lepor, a vice president of a large biomedical device company, wrote in a letter published on a Facebook page called UCLA Bruins Supporting Milan Chatterjee that she has taken UCLA out of her will.
“I am appalled as to how you treated Milan Chatterjee and your failure to protect him from the vicious actions of the BDS movement,” Jacobs-Lepor wrote.
And in June, the American Jewish Committee gave Chatterjee its inaugural Campus Courage Award for demonstrating “unusual courage and moral clarity in standing up to anti-Semitism and the BDS movement.” Peter Weil, a prominent real estate lawyer and former president of the AJC’s Los Angeles chapter, has given him pro bono legal help.
The issue even made its way onto the desk of U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a staunchly pro-Israel House member who represents the San Fernando Valley district in Los Angeles County. He has corresponded with UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, but Sherman is still researching the situation and is not ready to issue a full statement. (Both Sherman and Block are Jewish.)
Sherman said that he is concerned about Chatterjee’s claims of harassment and the way the university’s report was leaked online.
“I don’t think [UCLA] is a hostile environment for Jews. The question is, is it a hostile environment for Zionist students?” Sherman asked. “To think that you go from being elected graduate student body president to fleeing the university, that is an enormous change in one’s feelings. I would hope that we would make sure that other students don’t feel that.”
It has all been a wild, unexpected ride for Chatterjee, a 27-year-old Las Vegas resident who said he was merely trying to stay completely neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
“For two years … I never had any problems, we worked peacefully with student groups,” he said. “[BDS activists] made a Mount Everest out of a molehill.”
The ordeal began last October when a campus group called the Diversity Caucus reached out to the graduate student government to ask Chatterjee for funding for a panel event. Chatterjee initially agreed to hold a GSA vote on whether to provide $2,000 for the event, but sent a subsequent email to the Diversity Caucus stipulating that the group could not receive the funding if it engaged with any groups that supported divestment from Israel. He argued that funding Students for Justice in Palestine, a national anti-Zionist group with chapters on many college campuses, would imply taking a stand on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He also said it would have made some members of the student government uncomfortable.
Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA was allowed to have a table outside the event, but the panel discussion itself avoided talk of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The pro-Palestinian group complained to the campus administration, which launched an investigation that concluded that Chatterjee broke the school’s viewpoint neutrality rules, regardless of his intentions.
In a statement, Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA called Chatterjee’s actions “a direct effort to bar the ability of an organization to associate with or engage in speech about a particular viewpoint.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal sent a letter to the UCLA administration following the original incident, saying that requiring that GSA-funded programs have “zero connection” to BDS supporters violates students’ First Amendment rights.
Chatterjee, who is finishing his last year of law school at New York University, alleges that UCLA’s viewpoint neutrality rules were never explained to students — a fact the UCLA report acknowledges — and the school evaluated his actions under a University of California policy titled PACAOS 86.30 that UCLA never formally adopted. He wants UCLA to rescind the report and clear his record.
“This isn’t about free speech or free expression,” Weil said. “He’s not saying that people shouldn’t be entitled to criticize Israel or to defend Israel. His objection is how the university scapegoated him. When he applies to a bar exam, the bar is going to say ‘have you ever been investigated,’ and he’s going to have to explain it.”
Furthermore, Chatterjee claims that UCLA allowed BDS activists to leak the confidential report online. Vice Chancellor Jerry Kang, who headed the report, also wrote about the report on his blog and linked to it.
Chatterjee says pro-BDS students also launched a “smear campaign” that attempted to have him removed as graduate student president three separate times. He blames BDS activists for what he calls “defamatory” articles about him in the student paper and on anti-Zionist websites such as Mondoweiss and The Electronic Intifada. Toward the end of his term, several months after the diversity event, the student government voted to censure him. At one government meeting, Chatterjee says a student declared a “holy war” on him.
In response to an inquiry about the report’s confidentiality, Ricardo Vasquez, UCLA’s associate director of media relations, said the school was legally obligated to provide it to the Los Angeles Times in response to a public records request.
Both Block and Kang declined to respond to inquiries. However, Block issued a statement to UCLA stakeholders and other members of the public last week saying that UCLA “does not support divestment from Israel.”
“I personally am extremely proud of our numerous academic and cultural relationships with Israeli institutions. We have a thriving and vibrant Jewish community at UCLA, and I know from engaging with many of its members that they truly believe that UCLA is a welcoming and nurturing community for their beliefs. That it remains so is non-negotiable,” he wrote. “We will not tolerate anti-Semitism or discrimination against any member of our community. We will not allow groups or individuals to harass others, whether based on beliefs, opinions or speech.”
Weil said that Chatterjee’s case should make college administrations formalize the way they handle complaints from the BDS movement.
“The fact is that none of these administrators are trained in how to deal with this stuff. This is new stuff,” Weil said. “BDS is a very sophisticated group … but now you have to figure out how to deal with it.”